A political success, but don't expect a policy shift

Obama jetted off to Jordan this afternoon for the final leg of his Middle East tour, and meanwhile Lebanon's government just resigned and angry mobs are doing battle in the street in Egypt. So a few quick thoughts on Obama's Israel visit before everyone's attention turns elsewhere...

Politically the trip was a success. I'm not well-placed to comment on US domestic politics — though I suspect nothing Obama does will win him much favor with the Republican party. Here in Israel, though, he managed to mollify the right wing; his easy banter with the likes of Naftali Bennett would have been hard to imagine just a few weeks ago.

What does that really mean, though? On the "peace process," Obama didn't say anything radical. He tried to speak to the Israeli public over Benjamin Netanyahu's head, but his message was essentially "you're on your own": try to pressure your leaders to take risks for peace, and you'll have our support. He didn't offer any concrete initiatives, and he said very little about the issue of settlements.

One emerging argument here is that Obama's speech will embolden the Israeli left and free Netanyahu to try something bold. Mazal Mualem argued in Al-Monitor that Bibi has stacked his government with right-wingers in order to "give him some intra-party peace and quiet" while he makes a diplomatic push.

But this argument makes two unrealistic assumptions. One is that Netanyahu secretly harbors ambitions to advance peace — even though he has done nothing to make it a reality since he took office in 2009. The other is that his coalition would survive such a push. It's fanciful to think that Moshe Feiglin would be so satisfied with his new job as deputy Knesset speaker that he'll overlook a serious effort to create a Palestinian state.

If Netanyahu tries to return to the negotiating table, he will lose Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Feiglin wing of his own party, which gained strength in last year's Likud primaries. His coalition will cease to exist.

Obama, in other words, said nothing to really threaten Israel's right wing, so it's unsurprising that they responded with praise or muted criticism. He'll be on his way back to Washington tomorrow, the settlements will continue to grow, and nothing much will change.

Obama did have two concrete accomplishments on his trip, though one of them needs to be placed into context. First, he seems to have persuaded Netanyahu not to do anything unilateral on Iran, at least not in 2013. In their joint press conference on Wednesday night, the Israeli prime minister accepted Obama's argument that Iran will need at least another year to develop a nuclear weapon. And as Aluf Benn argued earlier in Ha'aretz, the Israeli security establishment now seems to accept that Obama is serious about Iran.

Persuading Netanyahu to apologize to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the deadly 2009 flotilla raid is also an accomplishment. Netanyahu is already facing some criticism for this move, notably from once (and future?) foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called it "a serious mistake."

Erdogan, in turn, said he is willing to normalize relations with Israel, even though Israel has not met his demand to lift the siege of Gaza — which opens him up to domestic criticism as well.

Max Fisher asked in the Washington Post whether Obama's Israel-Turkey diplomacy could be a precursor to renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks. My short answer would be "no." As Michael Koplow points out, Netanyahu did not risk his coalition by apologizing to Erdogan.

He also has a serious interest in renewing ties with Turkey: the civil war in Syria. Both countries are worried about spillover from there. Israeli sources say that Netanyahu apologized in part to reopen the door to security coordination and arms deals with Ankara; presumably the same reasons hold on the Turkish side. It's no coincidence that this apology came in the same week as Turkey's cease-fire with the PKK. Ankara has ulterior motives here.

By contrast, many Israeli policymakers think the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is sustainable, at least for now. Despite all the overheated "third intitfada" talk, the West Bank is quiet, and the occasional rocket fire from Gaza (much of it from fringe groups rather than Hamas) is acceptable as well. Netanyahu has no reason to stake the survival of his government on peace talks which will probably be unproductive and are (somewhat) widely viewed as unnecessary.

To sum up, then, Obama got what he came for: a chance to "reboot" his relationship with the Israeli public, and a softening of Netanyahu's positions on Iran. Beyond that, I wouldn't expect much movement.